Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Hawai’i1. Many women in our communities are familiar with breast cancer, but do not always have an awareness of the other cancers that uniquely affect the female body. Gynecologic cancers, or those that begin in the reproductive organs, also significantly impact the mothers, sisters, and daughters in our lives.
All women are at risk for gynecologic cancers, but each of the diseases is unique with distinct symptoms. The five main types of gynecologic cancers are named for the body part that they start in, including:
- Cervical (cervix)
- Ovarian (ovaries)
- Uterine (uterus)
- Vaginal (vagina)
- Vulvar (vulva)
Patricia Inada, a registered nurse in the gynecologic oncology department at Queen’s, provides patient-centric care when women are undergoing treatments for these types of cancers. She supports a multidisciplinary treatment approach within this specialized field.
Patricia says, “We often have the best outcomes with early detection and when we can support these women throughout their treatment. As women grow older, they have an increased risk for a diagnosis. Of the gynecologic cancers, only cervical cancer has a screening test, which makes it that much more important for women to know the symptoms and share any issues with their healthcare team.”
The most significant warning sign for women is vaginal bleeding that is unusual. Speak to your doctor if you notice that your periods are heavier, more frequent, or last longer than normal. If you experience vaginal bleeding after menopause, you also need to speak with your doctor.
The CDC shares the following list as common symptoms of gynecologic cancers2:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge is common on all gynecologic cancers except vulvar cancer.
- Feeling full too quickly or difficulty eating, bloating, and abdominal or back pain are common for ovarian cancer.
- Pelvic pain or pressure is common for ovarian and uterine cancers.
- More frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation are common for ovarian and vaginal cancers.
- Itching, burning, pain, or tenderness of the vulva, and changes in vulva color or skin, such as a rash, sores, or warts, are found only in vulvar cancer.
In addition to knowing the symptoms, women can also take a few simple steps to reduce their risk of gynecologic cancers.
Routine cervical cancer screenings are recommended between the ages of 25 and 65 years old. These tests can indicate pre-cancer cells and are the best way to identify any changes that may lead to cancer.
The HPV vaccine is another effective prevention measure. Cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a very common sexually transmitted infection. The CDC recommends vaccination for those between the ages of 9 and 26 years old3.
Lastly, be sure to share your family history with your healthcare team. Some women can have an increased risk due to a hereditary trait. It may be important to receive screenings more frequently, seek out genetic testing or monitor potential red flags more closely. Early detection goes a long way to treating and preventing gynecologic cancers.